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TPFLast Friday, a guy named Mike Barber, an editor from SWAY Journal, the blog(ish) arm of G&S Branding, a large a ad agency(ish) firm, got in touch with me and asked if I would answer a few questions about the beer market. I said fine, just email ’em and I’ll get back to you quickly. I’ll try to be brief, I told him, though anyone who reads this bloglet knows that I’m almost incapable of that.

As it turns out, I wasn’t capable of it at all. Not on this subject. And at the end of my voluminous answers, I attached a quote from the remarkable Garrett Oliver, words which stick in my head and heart and just will not leave me alone.

I said a lot of things you’ve read here before and I apologize for plowing the same dirt again but, somewhere along the line in writing it, blood started to flow through it. It went from answering questions to tapping into my own passion and anger. Like a character in a great play, it assumed a life of its own…and I think I should share it with you…

 

I’ll TRY to be brief but, if you’ve ever read The Pour Fool, you’ll know that’s not my forte:

1. Why do you think the big breweries are going this “stealth” craft route—is it simply a sales issue, or is something  more fundamental at stake here?
The Real Deal / The Skeevy Pretender

The Real Deal / The Skeevy Pretender

 

Because it’s the only strategy that will work, aside from AB’s notion that they can just go out and buy craft brewing cred by gobbling up breweries. Buying strategically, as they have, gives them a legitimate route into the NY, WA, CA, OR, and IL legislatures and that’s where they do the most damage. So that’s the stealth tactic and the stealth beers are a lower-ambition ploy. None of them except the heinous Shock Top have worked for AB, and Schlock Slop is nothing but a version of Blue Moon that AB’s “brewers” obviously looked at and said, “Hey, if Americans like these spicy flavors, let’s add a TON more of ’em and they’ll like it MORE!!” Blue Moon is a pretty nice, drinkable Belgian-style Wheat beer. I drink it occasionally and really enjoy it. Shock Top is just a mess; like somebody tossed a Christmas fruitcake in a blender with a stale can of Bud and hit “puree”. Filter, bottle, drink, puke: That’s Shock Top. AB has run through a bunch of those faux-craft brands, now, all created on the premise that young drinkers are no smarter than their traditional core audience. Remember, they didn’t even start to really take Craft Brewing seriously as a threat until less than ten years ago. And they immediately said, “Huh, well we can make those beers, too” and failed SPECTACULARLY.  The “more fundamental” aspect is that they took too long to see that craft would eventually start eroding their market share and thought they’d just whup up something that sorta looked like craft beers and drinkers would just fall into line. They didn’t realize (and really STILL don’t) what sort of marketplace poison their very name is and that the rooty distrust MOST Americans have for Big Business absolutely includes them. The issue goes right to the heart of what AB has always thought they are: the King of Beers. Well, there’s been a coup and they just can’t grasp that.

2. If the beer is good, does it matter who makes it? 

 

Taproom culture at Founders Brewing

Taproom culture at Founders Brewing

It matters to me and it SHOULD matter to anyone who loves and cares about what has become one of the most dynamic business segment evolutions in American history, complete with its own very vibrant culture. The evolution away from All Things French in wine took 80+ years. Beer has grown from less than two dozen breweries to FOUR THOUSAND in two decades! Anyone who has ever gone into a small, independent brewery and sat down with friends, had a great beer, and looked around and thought, “This is SO COOL, and it’s right in my own backyard!” and then says that it doesn’t matter if AB buys up Elysian and 10 Barrel and Goose Island is actively aiding in the destruction of the very culture they think is so cool. AB/InBev’s stated goal is to drag us all back to watery Pilsners and they work behind the scenes CONSTANTLY to hinder craft breweries. If you just go along with the new Goose Island 312 and Honkers and keep buying Elysian and 10 Barrel, you’re filling the very coffers that are financing an all-out effort to destroy craft beer. Anyone who can’t see that has no sense of history and is not looking down the road. I’m sure SOME of the beers from their bought-out breweries are still exactly what they were before they peddled their asses to “foreign interests” but they’re not entering into my house or my mouth, ever again. There are 4K breweries in this country. We lose this handful AB buys out and how hard is it, really, to find another great local beer? When I shop for beer, even disregarding all the Elysian, Goose, 10 Barrel, and Red Hook product, there are still PLENTY of choices, many, maybe most, of them a LOT better.

3. We’re all familiar with that supposedly boneheaded ad campaign put out by Budweiser that made fun of craft brewers, despite Anheuser-Busch owning Elysian and a bunch of other smaller brewing operations. What do you make of their strategy of turning the kind of beer you drink into a mini culture war?
Keystone's "Bitter Beer Face" ads

Keystone’s “Bitter Beer Face” ads

 

It’s what they have left. AB’s advertising has always been about touting what they are versus what somebody else is. “Born On Dating” was nothing but a ploy to slap at craft beer and the fact that many craft beers wait a while before going out onto shelves.  In the mini culture war, they won that round, in a BIG way, because now you have legions of craft fans who DEMAND born-on dates. From the beginning of when they took notice of craft beer, they went right back to that fertile ground of Bud’s supposed “manliness”, deriding “foofy” beers with fruit and nuts and spices in them, strongly implying that people who drank them must have undescended testicles and less hair on their scrotums. They sneered at bitterness and were aided and abetted by the dickheads over at Coors, who first aired those Keystone Light “Bitter Beer Face” commercials and gave craft that nickname, by IMPLICATION, because – I suspect, with no proof – that Coors, being based in Colorado, knew that pissing off craft beer fans wasn’t a great idea. Most people won’t remember but there were dozens of those vaguely anti-craft commercials and print ads, long before the more visible ones like the Super Bowl ad, that just came right out swinging…and inadvertently punched their own new acquisition, Elysian, right in their peach-pumpkin smeared face. The one thing that everybody SHOULD try to get out of ALL of Bud’s advertising and public statements is that they never argue on the basis of quality or flavor. They mention “clean, crisp taste” on passing but, compared to any craft beer, all of theirs are incredibly wimpy and pallid. That should tell people everything they need to know about where Bud’s at. And that segment of the population that doesn’t know or care about flavor and just, really, drinks beer to get shit-faced and par-tay will never completely die out and mostly cannot be converted to craft beer. If AB can’t widen that rift between those who still perceive BudMillerCoors as “manly” and all of us effete, artsy, gay-friendly losers, they’re really sort of out of tricks and will have to double down on wheedling concessions from state legislatures and trying to rig distribution to squeeze craft beers out of markets…and you can bet that’s EXACTLY what’s gonna happen.

 
 
4. How can actual craft breweries respond or react to these incursions given their limited marketing budgets and distribution channels?
GABF: What the Brewers Association Spends Its Money For

GABF: What the Brewers Association Spends Its Money For

 

If the Brewers Association could see their way clear to either give up tossing the world’s largest kegger every year OR take the money that generates and using it to some vengeful purpose, they COULD start doing their own sort of promotions and ads that tout craft beer and suggests the very real likelihood that any younger person who is not making that transition away from mass-produced crap beer and into craft brewery beers is missing one HELL of a fun party that goes on DAILY, at 4,000+ places all over the map. Craft brewing and the culture that it has spawned is COOL, damnit. “Drink Local” is a helluva slogan and plays right into our regionalism and healthy American tribalism. Is it more fun to take a plastic garbage can full of ice and 48 cans of Bud Light to somebody’s house, listen to their boom box, and  just get hammered…or to go to your local brewery’s taproom, have beers with friends, do a Trivia night or a release party or see a band, and be a PART OF SOMETHING? This IS the time to drive the stake through Count InBev’s heart and the very thing that Bud has always seen as their private domain – advertising and omnipresent promotional messages – could be used to deliver Craft beer’s message, instead of all of us just dismissing one the world’s largest beverage producer as “irrelevant”. No entity with 4 billion dollars for getting their message out is “irrelevant”. But nobody’s telling craft brewing’s side of the beer story. The community is so fragmented – 4,000 little fiefdoms that only talk to collaborate on beers – that anyone who gets the message on why this is so superior to BudMillerCoors has to be indoctrinated by friends or be really motivated and good at google.

Taproom culture at Denver's neighborhood brewery, Renegade

Taproom culture at Denver’s neighborhood brewery, Renegade

Yeah, exactly: all those small breweries have no appreciable marketing budget but if they combined their resources, what would it cost each of them to pay for a national advertising campaign? What if a yearly ad fee were augmented by the proceeds from GABF? What if corporate co-sponsors were willing to go in for some co-op ads? What, in short, if the people entrusted with craft brewing’s collective will, the Brewers Association, – or some group as yet to be formed? – got into it with AB/InBev, foreign interlopers who routinely lie and misrepresent craft beer? What if the Truth about craft beer – that it supports ALL of our local economies, employs thousands, breeds a STRONG, uber-American sense of community, and amply pads out states’ tax coffers – got SAID, repeatedly and strongly…along with the indisputable FACT that NONE of those mega-brewers who used to tour their all-American, red, white ‘n’ blue patriotism is even an American company, anymore! Fighting back is really as simple as spreading the word about what craft beer really IS: your family, friends, and neighbors, making things – real stuff that you can drink and enjoy and share and have again, just by walking down the street! – right there in your very own town. Supporting American-owned businesses, small businesses, as opposed to supporting faceless foreigners whose only interest in you, the beer drinker, is your dollars in their bank account? Who wouldn’t get on board with that? Whose beer would you rather buy, your neighbor’s, the guy you went to high school with? Or some Brazilian fat cat corporate executive who only sees America as a “market”? These are not brain surgery. Even some jackass like Ben Carson could understand this. But somebody has to SAY IT, LOUDLY and PUBLICLY, so that everybody can hear. And, right now, there’s nobody doing it.

 
Finally, if you’ve never read this quote from Garrett Oliver, you have to. Garrett Oliver makes me proud to be an American, (I kinda wish he’d run for president.) and this is so dead-on it almost makes me tear up when I read it. If there’s such a thing as the rallying cry of craft brewing’s culture, here it is:
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garret_judges_cropped“What did you really think the big boys were going to do….lay down and die? Think about it. You’re running one of these mega-conglomerate-brew-water-softdrink thingys. Your market starts to go south, and you can see the writing on the wall – it’s a brand new world, and increasingly people don’t want your products, and worse, they don’t like you. What do you do? Well, if you’re Hostess Foods, you die…or you fight back by making beers that people do want and changing your brand to something that people don’t hate. Sure, it’s sort of dishonest, but these businesses have nothing but money at the heart of them…My point is this: we’re winning. They have all the money and we’re winning. They dress up as us, and we’re winning. They pay for draft lines, illegally, under the table, and we’re winning. They own the stadiums, and we’re winning. Why waste our time worrying about them? They were either going to adapt or die, and they’re adapting. Did we expect something else? And who’s got 30%, 40%, 50% growth? Money is loud, and it makes noise. You can’t silence money. But it doesn’t always win. Money eats its own children, and everyone always thinks they’ll be spared, if they’ll only hand over their neighbors. “If I sell my brewery to the big boys, I’ll be fine.” “If I produce cheap store-own brands, I’ll be fine.” “If I can just compete on price, I’ll be fine.” Yeah, and you’ll go apologize to Lord Vader…it doesn’t work. Besides, your brand is partly based on NOT being THEM. Believe it or not, they are unintentionally doing you a favor – they’re opening doors that you and I are gonna walk through. They own the stadium, but it’s our game, our football. And they shall not be saved.

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2 thoughts on “From the Heart of Craft Brewing: One Fool…and Garrett Oliver

  1. Love the points in question #4, I’m thinking I’d like to see more support from the guilds and associations for the industry (heck even “got milk” style advertising would help).

    A local guild in BC where I live, smartly put together a mix BC pack and helped setup distribution across the country to get more exposure for our beer. What a great idea, all you have to do is get the product in people’s mouths and it sells itself from that point. They also help sponsor quarterly collaborations that get released in our Provincial Liquor Stores, again getting way more exposure for their members. They sponsored a Rookie Tent at our annual awards festival, showcasing new breweries and a number of other similar efforts. I’d love to see more of this from other associations beyond putting on a beer fest!

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Speak yer piece, Pilgrim.

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